ISFSI Member Spotlight: Mike Richardson

Tell us about yourself and why you decided to join the fire service?

My name is Mike Richardson and I currently serve as the Division Chief of Training & Safety with the St Matthews FD in Louisville, KY. I have 8 years of military service with the US Army and 26 years of volunteer and career experience between 7 fire departments located in NY, FL, and KY. I worked for 3 years as Bullard’s Thermal Imaging Training Specialist. I also served as an adjunct faculty member for the Fire Science Program at Eastern KY University. I had the honor and privilege to serve for 4 years on the Board of Directors for the Fire Dept. Safety Officers Association.

My original plans growing up had nothing to do with the fire service, and I was originally going to follow in the family tradition of serving in the military and working in law enforcement. After leaving the military I put in applications for both the PD and FD as they both were great options in public service. Luck or fate, the FD was the first one to offer me a full-time career position. My years in the fire service have been extremely challenging and rewarding, so 26 years later as they say, “the rest is history”!


Who or what has inspired you as a fire instructor?

My initial experience serving as an instructor was in the military. In my humble opinion, the fire service still has a lot to learn from how the military instructs! I really enjoyed the reward of seeing students going through the challenges of training and ultimately succeeding. I also felt that it was important to pass along everything that I had learned the hard way in my combat deployments. Just like how the fire service trains for fighting fires, we spent countless hours in the military training for when we would see combat. Once it happened, we found out very quickly what really mattered the most and it was not always things that had been covered in our training. I believe that being the best possible instructor ultimately means that you are teaching your students what they REALLY need to succeed in the REAL WORLD and not just in a training or administrative environment.

Throughout my fire service career, I was extremely fortunate to have been exposed to the absolute best firefighters and instructors from all over the country. With all of today’s technological advances it is easier to access a wide range of subjects from the best instructors out there. Unfortunately, I think too many firefighters are still limiting their learning opportunities to their local area. I was also extremely lucky early in my fire service career to have had the opportunity to teach at FDIC due to my subject matter expertise in Thermal Imaging. For the next 20 years I was able to work alongside the absolute best instructors in the world like Bob Athanas, Dave Dodson, Tim Klett, Mike Lombardo, Jim McCormack, Ray McCormack, Bob Pressler and Steven Woodworth just to name a few. Each one of those individuals demonstrated something different that drove me to be a much better instructor. Once again, they all had learned through many years of on the job experience what it took to succeed as a firefighter, and they had developed the best methodologies to pass that critical information along to their students. You may be the absolute best at whatever it is you do, but it takes the right person with the right attitude and skill set to be able to pass those successful traits and talents along to others.

 

What are some things you are working on in your department and how can others learn from it?

There are 2 major projects that we have been working on in my department. Project 1 – FD Merger: 2 years ago, my dept. merged with a neighboring dept and there has been a lot going on! On the training front, there have a been several projects and I could fill pages with the lessons learned, but some big takeaways were:

  • You must recognize and address the differences in “culture”. It is easy to focus on the “hard things” that are in writing, but the “soft things” that are unwritten are just as important.
  • Never assume anything, especially that if one dept has been doing it then the other must have been doing it as well. You need to use unbiased objective based testing methods in your training to determine where everyone is at.
  • You must train your personnel to meet your dept’s policies and procedures. As such, the Command Staff must combine the different ones from each dept. and get them on paper ASAP so that training can take place accordingly.
  • Any FD merger is going to be a “marathon”! As much as some people want to make it a “sprint”, you must not rush things. You are much better off to take the time to get it right, because the fallout from failures can be hard to recover from. We are 2 years in, and it is still very much a work in progress!

Project 2 – Career Development: There is no truer statement than “the most valuable asset that any organization has is their personnel”. As such, we have been constantly trying to improve our professional development process. We have modeled our program after the National Professional Development Model (https://www.usfa.fema.gov/training/prodev) which focuses on the 4 key areas of Education, Training, Experience, and Self-Development. Some key points: 

  • Education – we are big proponents of higher education. With the never-ending changes that are taking place in the world around us there must be constant education to keep up with them. The key with higher education is to find the program that is really focused on teaching what your students need to know. Not all degree programs are created equal! Pursuing a degree should NOT be about getting a piece of paper at the end of the process, it should be about the journey and the learning that takes place getting there. Do not be afraid to challenge a program, or move onto another program, if the program is not providing the education that your personnel need.
  • Training – there are only so many training hours available, so the key is to focus on the topics that are most needed for success. You must have a strong foundation built before you try to move onto another level. An ongoing needs assessment along with objective testing is critical to ensure that your personnel are training on the topics that are a priority and have the most room for improvement. If your training is not pushing you to the point of failure, then it is failing you and you will never improve!
  • Experience – most people would argue that firsthand experience is the best, but the problem with firsthand experience is that you do not get to choose how much gain. You must take every opportunity that you can in your daily responses to gain firsthand experience. This can include things like ride-up programs, formal mentors, and after-action reviews. Secondhand experience can still be very valuable, and you can control how much you get. Experience can ultimately be boiled down to having to make decisions under demanding circumstances. As such, you can improve secondhand experience by building decision making exercises into all levels of your training program.
  • Self-Development – if the individual is not “squared away”, then everything else will be built on a foundation that will eventually fail. There are several areas of self-development that are especially important. Physical Fitness is one that is extremely important but can also be challenging for fire service instructors to address. Well developed “Emotional Intelligence” is the “Gold Standard” in most professions, but it is something that not being addressed adequately in the fire service. With most self-development topics, the key for success may be to go to an outside expertise to help as needed.

 

Tell us about a project or training accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career?

There are 2 things that I feel were both outstanding opportunities and things that I believe that I have accomplished the most as an instructor:

  • Bullard Thermal Imaging Training Specialist: I was extremely fortunate to get in at the “ground level” of thermal imaging when it was introduced to the fire service in the 1990s. I was part of the technical team that helped to develop the first thermal imagers offered by Bullard. I was able to author over 30 articles on thermal imaging in the major fire service publications. I also traveled around the world teaching firefighters in over 40 states and 8 countries how to use thermal imaging. All of that combined, taught me a tremendous amount about firefighting and it forced me to become a much better “professional instructor” at all levels.
  • FDIC HOT Instructor and Classroom Lecturer: As I mentioned above, I have been extremely fortunate to have been at FDIC for over 20 years. The only way that you return to FDIC year after year is to continually improve your delivery at all levels and receive the best possible student evaluations. To do that you have to stick to the fundamentals of successful instruction; be the subject matter expert, know your audience, and deliver your program in a way that engages, motivates, and measurably improves your students.

Between those 2 things, I have had the opportunity to instruct firefighters from all over the world, and hopefully they have benefited from that exchange as much as I have.


What do you hope to accomplish as a fire service instructor? When you are gone, what do you want people to remember you by?

  • I would hope that I have encouraged and provided many other firefighters with the traits and skillsets that they need to be better instructors. If someone is not properly prepared to step into my shoes when I am gone, then I have failed to prepare the fire service to carry on.
  • When I am gone, hopefully my students will remember me as someone who was not afraid to admit that “I did not know it all”, but I would do whatever it took to insure that they got the answers that they needed. As a service, we will not improve if we don’t ask the hard questions (even if we think we have the answers!) and work equally hard to get the correct answers.

 

What is the biggest change you have noticed in the fire service since you started?

  • Technology – My age is showing, but I started my fire service career with overhead transparencies and slide projectors. When people talk about “something being in your slide tray”, I get it! I started instructing without the internet, computers, and PowerPoint. While I am a strong advocate for use of technology in training, it cannot make up for poor instructional techniques. Technology should enhance any training experience, but “death by PowerPoint” is a prime example of where things can go wrong. Being a successful instructor is knowing how to use, but not abuse, technology as a training aid.
  • Generations – When I came into the fire service over 25 years ago I was surrounded by military veterans and people from the “trades”, everyone came from a very blue-collar background where they earned a living with their backs and hands. That has changed very drastically in the last 25-30 years! The key is to embrace the strengths that the newer generations bring to the table and help them to fill in the missing areas that the older generations had.
  • Research – I conducted research working on my bachelor’s and master’s degrees over 15 years ago, but I was the exception to the rule at that time in the fire service. Fortunately, in the last 10 years that has changed, and research is steadily becoming a main component of the fire service. The key going forward is to ensure that research is being conducting properly so that it can provide valuable contributions on the street in the real world of firefighting.

What is something that most people don’t know about you?

I am a “wannabe” genealogy researcher which has led me to learn that my family has built and fought for this country since its very beginning. My ancestors came to this country in 1632. Those ancestors married into Daniel Boones family and explored alongside him to build settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains. Multiple members of my family have fought in every conflict this country has been in from the Revolutionary War to the Global War on terrorism. Three generations of my family have served with the 101 st Airborne Division during wartime to include myself. My family has lived by the motto “Duty, Honor, and Country”, and I think that strong family background is what has largely guided me in my military and fire service careers.


What advice do you have to give another instructor or to somebody who is just starting out as an instructor?

  • Networking – the worst mistake any instructor can make is to try and go it alone. Whatever situation you are in, there is another instructor that has already been there, and in many cases learned what works best the hard way. You should make every effort you can to always have a solid experienced mentor who can keep you on track, challenge you when needed for growth, and help you when you hit the wall and can’t succeed. Without a doubt, ISFSI is the best place to start your networking and find that mentor.
  • R&D – it is important to remember that “R&D” can also stand for “Rip-Off & Duplicate”! I know too many instructors that needlessly waste time and resources “reinventing the wheel”. In this day & age with the proper connections and technology it is easy to find what you need without having to create it yourself. The key is to make sure that you thoroughly assess it and modify it as needed to meet your specific needs. Just because it is working for another Dept. obviously does not guarantee that it will work for you Dept. Just remember to do your best to share with other instructors as much as you are receiving.
  • Ask Why! – never be too ashamed, intimidated, or arrogant to ask “Why?” In the first half of my fire service I made a huge mistake by taking everything that was taught to me as being 100% correct and I never asked “Why?”. The fire service has a bad track record of telling newer people to keep their eyes and ears open and their mouths shut. That is not the most effective way to encourage your people to learn and grow. You will also have to face the reality that the newer generations coming into the fire service are going to ask “Why?”, and they will not take “because I said so” as an answer! The phenomenal research being conducted by NIST & UL has shown the fire service how much we still must learn. It is extremely important that we learn how to ask and answer “Why?” in a manner that is both respectful and beneficial to everyone involved.
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